Is the hierarchy of language everything?

There is a clear hierarchy of languages revealed in Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. When he tells of the Antilleans’ desire to learn French French (as if there was a definitive dialect), even as Senagalese try to speak like native Antilleans, the hierarchy becomes really stark and not a little funny. Sad, perhaps, but funny nonetheless.

But this hierarchy is not about the beauty of language alone, but more to do with power — what it connotes, with regards to one’s origins. This is why Germans or Russians who speak bad French, while maybe derided, still are given respect: it’s because their country, be it military might, culture, are respected. Not so for the Africans.

But where does that leave us? Language, as Fanon talks about, is alienating all around, for the colonised individual, whether he speaks French French or creole. Fanon himself seems to have no solution, for he ends the essay elliptically…

The hierarchy remains, today. The languages I would like to learn, in order, is this: French,  Spanish, Italian. Why not Malay, or Vietnamese? Not simply because the former are more exotic, or immediately useful in my Singaporean context, that’s for sure. And we assess people on their proficiency in English for sure: and why else does the British accent hold such awe for us?

But I want to suggest that in some ways, all isn’t as Fanon sees it — it’s not ALL about national or ethnic identity. If we see linguistic prowess as a skill, it should not be surprising that people are impressed by skilful users of language. And some skills are just naturally more sought after, even if they are not pragmatically useful; for example, piano-playing, ballet, archery, oh, and, golf? This hierarchy of desirability obtains from another mode of value-giving, I think. The first two might be considered artistic (thus ‘good’) and the latter, well, I honestly, don’t know!

Filtering the self through fiction

In ‘Growing’, Woolf often compares the people he comes across with literary characters in order to illustrate better for his readers that which he is talking about. The first instance of this (in ‘Jaffna’) was when he compared the G.A’s wife, Mrs Lewis to Mrs Jennings of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and it struck me as being amusing.

But I soon realized that his tendency to look at people with ‘literary lens’ reveals the political nature of reading – it is very much about power. An example is when he compares the white residents of Jaffna to characters in Kipling’s works:

The white people were also in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story. (p.46)

Not only does this bring to attention the power of representation – it is not only the colonised, but also the coloniser who is perhaps mis-represented, and consequently, influenced and changed by those mis-representations:

We all pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings. (p.47)

Along the same lines of reading the self, as well as colonial relations through texts, Woolf includes letters from this past. These he suggests show clearer his state of mind at those points in time. It seems to me that in reading his ex-self, he works to exculpate his present-self – he distances himself from his past, a past which he underscores already give ‘exaggerated, one-sided picture[s] of the writer’s state of mind’ (p.61).

Thus his candidness in talking about his ex-self as ‘imperialist’ needs to be reconsidered – to what extent does he assume responsibility for his part as agent of empire? Or does he use texts to evade the blame, casting his ex-self as simply some character whose motivations could be deferred and excused by writing and by fiction?

Discovering my misogyny through literature

This blog post is going to be be a little anecdotal and is a little bit long, so please bear with me. : )

I did not expect for a passage in ‘Burmese Days’ which made me laugh out loud would lead to my being aware of my own participation in patriarchal misogyny. The passage I’m referring to is the one where we talk about the effects of U Po Kyin’s letter to Mrs Lackersteen:

“U Po Kyin had touched Mrs Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes.”  (137-8)

To me the passage was funny because the description of her vividly imaginative fear revealed Mrs Lackersteen’s secret desire for the native other. So I turned to a friend who’d read the novel, pointed to the passage and said “You know she wants it.’ Unexpectedly, my friend didn’t get me, and replied with ‘That’s what rapists always say you know.’

Thinking back on the misunderstanding a few days later, I suddenly realised that in some sense it wasn’t really a misunderstanding at all. This is because after having read Ann Stoler’s ‘Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers’, where she talks more about who (European) women were designated the roles of ‘protectors’ of racial and ethnic morality, and a lot of them took it upon themselves. This is perhaps why in ‘A Passage To India’ it was said that the memsahibs behaved more racist than the sahibs.

If female sexuality (as Stoler says) was the means of policing and maintaining differences between the ethnic identities of the coloniser and colonised – and by extension, the former’s right to rule over the latter – the fact that ‘sedition’ and ‘Nationalism’ was interpreted as a danger to her sexuality is not that surprising anymore. In some sense, it is patriarchy that is to blame for Mrs Lackersteen’s fear, and thus in the same way that patriarchal dominance and misogyny is responsible for violence against women to this day, my joke – ‘you know she wants it’ – really reveals my own culpability with patriarchal ideology, despite my own professions to feminism. I am glad for this chance to self-examine that literature has provided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escaping postcolonial bind

Chatterjee talks about how Washbrook’s revisionist attempts to recover Indian history for India, by ‘tracing the continuities from precolonial to early colonial processes’ (30) actually in fact serves to exculpate Britain (and France as well, I would add, to a small extent) from their responsibilities as ex-colonisers of India, because the ‘new’ history would see colonialism as resulting from processes that were happening in India already, before the British (and French) came to power.

She suggests that Washbrook inevitably does this this by writing from within the same discursive conditions, in that he does not question the concept of ‘capitalism’ — in her words, ‘assuming the universality of the categories of political economy’ (33) — because his argument depends on fundamentals of western social science.

While I do agree with her, I also think that this is a conundrum that might be impossible to get out of. After all, ‘discursive conditions’ can be interpreted very broadly, and Chatterjee herself is writing, I would suggest, as a social scientist, be it as historian or political scientist. Certainly if she is to be a ‘postcolonial writer’ she cannot escape the postcolonial bind that she claims Washbrook to be bound by. In addition, is she not writing in English?

I agree that Washbrook’s usage of ‘capitalism’ needs to be qualified and critiqued. But I also think that perhaps Washbrook’s attempts is about recovering a denied history, which is itself an endeavour that has greater significance than the actual content of that new history — it signposts to us the futility of writing that which is lost using the tools of the ex-oppressor. Maybe the subaltern (Indian history) cannot be spoken for.

The illusion/delusion of the colonialist

Researching for my EN4223 class, I came across a book in which the writer pointed out how for the English colonialists in India, an illusion was a major part of coloniser-colonised relations. This illusion was that the English thought that the natives thought of them as some kind of gods, due to their incredible ability to fight and administrate. They would then play into that type, acting a little like gods.

Wurgaft underscores that the English were aware that they were putting on an act. What is more interesting for me, though, is that it is perhaps a DELUSION, more than an illusion – was it really true that the Indians treated them like gods? Or was it the colonialists’ self-deception, self-aggrandisation? It seemed to me that this was another instance of the whites imputing to the natives a tendency towards believing the supernatural. In any case, it does sort of explain why Kipling came up with his notorious term of the  ‘white man’s burden’.

Reading Wallace, it became a lot clearer. The reason why the colonialists thought the natives treated them like gods was because they did behave like gods, from the outset — the very act of colonisation, when they took to domineering them and deciding right and wrong – ‘Equal justice was awarded to Malay, Chinaman, and Dyak.’ (p.71) – is an act of a race that saw themselves in a sense like gods. Thus, the delusion preceded colonialism.

Who were the ones with the tendency towards supernaturalism now, then?

Is there a language of non-discrimination?

Achebe contends that it ‘is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa (341). He then goes on to say that what Conrad does with HoD is in fact what goes on in many other areas, and even today: ‘In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress’ (349).

It strikes me as being a little ironic that violence is done using language, on language, but more importantly (as Achebe would no doubt agree) it’s about how pervasive and enduring racism in language is, ‘more akin to a reflex action’ (348). This for me directly relates to the issue of political-(in)correctness.

While it is true that Achebe is not merely arguing for great works of art or the Christian Science Monitor to be politically-correct, the suggestion that the right words need to be used when talking about those who have historically been oppressed or marginalised. But what happens when political-correctness itself becomes un-PC, because it inevitably emphasises the need to not be un-PC? The need to single certain groups of people out for special treatment when talking about them becomes the new ‘reflex action’, then politically-correct language is the new language of the bigot.

This is perhaps why american comedies constantly mock PC-ness — is it because they see that the only way to deal with the intractable problems of talking of/about the Other is by not being too serious about it, and being willing to laugh at ourselves and our prejudices? [I am saying this keeping in mind that some of my friends find Achebe a little too serious, in this essay.]

On “On Violence”

Fanon emphasises many times that the colonised dream not of taking the coloniser’s place: ‘Not of becoming a colonist, but replacing him.’ (16)

That too me was really significant, because I feel like the nuance of that difference eludes me — so the native doesn’t want to BECOME a coloniser, but wants to simply take the latter’s place. What does that mean, really?

When you take someone’s place, do you not take over the function of that person? Do you not step into the position of power that person had, thereby wielding that power?

It’s got me thinking — does Fanon really mean to say that the native wants to step into that position, wield that power but importantly NOT ‘oppress’, well, themselves? It seems like a moot point to me.

But another more important point to me is that Fanon in “On Violence” seems to me to reveal how the native-with-power will simply be oppressing/committing injustices on other groups of people.

Fanon writes as if nationalist aims were of supreme importance – ‘in their part of the world slogans of national liberation should come first’ (22) – and enacts that in this article: there is nary a mention of gender inequalities or  subtle-but-important ethnic differences, as if the colonised were a monolithic whole.

Thus when he writes of how ‘Truth is what protects the “natives” and undoes the foreigners’ (14), I find myself a  little worried. Whose truth is it? That of the nationalist, but soon-to-be-fascist?

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!